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For the past century treasure hunters have searched for the gold lost in the wreck of The Islander. They knew the fortune lay off the Alaska coast near Juneau, but even though one salvager succeeded in pulling much of the ship off the ocean floor, the treasure remained elusive. Then a former Navy diver decided to try his luck at finding the wreck. He spent more than 10 years researching The Islander to pinpoint the gold. Just as he was about to begin the salvage operation a claim jumper muscled in and tried to say the shipwreck — and the gold — was his. So the intrepid ex-Navy diver did what any modern treasure hunter might do. He called his lawyer, Forrest Booth, a San Francisco maritime attorney and of counsel at Philadelphia’s Cozen O’Connor. Booth eventually defeated the claim jumper, and he was able to get around the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, under which the state of Alaska would own the gold, by contacting the company that insured the vessel in 1901. The company signed a contract that allowed Booth’s client to salvage the wreck and keep a big chunk of the gold for himself. It’s that kind of adventure story that in Booth’s book makes “maritime litigation more fact-intensive and interesting” than other areas. “There is something romantic about the sea and maritime practice,” Booth said. “The roots go back to the laws of Oleron,” the first maritime code written nearly 1,000 years ago on an island off the coast of France. Despite the excitement, dealing with shipwrecked treasure isn’t the norm for San Francisco law firms these days. In fact, maritime work — once one of the hottest practices in San Francisco — has been roiled by the changes in the shipping industry. Advances in technology and greater foreign competition have created safer working conditions and reduced the number of ships and sailors at sea. As a result, basic maritime work involving cargo damage, collisions and personal injury cases has dwindled and is now handled by boutique firms. “Traditional forms of maritime work have vastly diminished in terms of activity,” said Mark Kasanin, counsel at Boston-based Bingham McCutchen who has practiced maritime law since the 1960s. Big firms now focus on “specialty areas, such as environmental and appellate work, that aren’t traditionally maritime matters.” When major catastrophes occur at sea, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the legal work goes to large firms rather than maritime outfits. Bingham McCutchen, for example, is representing Exxon Shipping in an appeal of the Exxon Valdez $5 billion punitive damage award, while Los Angeles’ O’Melveny & Myers is representing Exxon Corp. Even so, the practice is still out there — and, given the history of San Francisco, is likely to remain an area where a few lawyers can carve out a niche. GLORY DAYS San Francisco was a major port city throughout most of the 20th century. Hundreds of tons of cargo came through the docks every day, and several major shipping lines had their headquarters downtown. Old-line San Francisco firms like Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and the former McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen had large maritime practices through the early 1980s. Matson Navigation Co. was one of Brobeck’s biggest clients, while American President Lines was among McCutchen Doyle’s clientele. Smaller outfits, such as the former Graham & James (now Squire, Sanders & Dempsey) and Lillick & Charles (now Nixon Peabody) built their business on maritime law. But the advent of containerization — encasing cargo in huge stackable containers rather than carried on individual pallets — dramatically changed the industry. It made shipping and cargo handling safer, and resulted in the use of fewer and bigger ships. Improvements in navigation and radar technology also reduced collisions and injuries. And in the last decade as the shipping industry has consolidated, many U.S. shipping lines have gone out of business or been acquired by foreign companies. Given these changes in the industry, most general practice firms have pretty much shed their maritime practices. That has left the field to a handful of specialty firms, or boutique offices of large firms. Two Philadelphia firms have established maritime practices in San Francisco. Cozen O’Connor opened an S.F. office two years ago when it hired attorneys from Booth’s small maritime firm. Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, which opened a San Francisco office three years ago, also hired a couple of maritime attorneys from a local boutique. Other S.F. maritime firms include Kaye, Rose & Maltzman; Emard, Danoff, Port & Tamulski, which split from Kaye Rose last year; Cox, Wootton, Griffin, Hansen & Poulos; and Bullivant Houser Bailey, which acquired the 100-year-old S.F. maritime firm Derby, Cook, Quinby & Tweedt two years ago. While these firms still handle traditional maritime cases like insurance coverage disputes, attorneys say they also are doing more commercial and international work. “My practice focuses on the business side of shipping rather than the casualty side,” said Charles Donovan, a partner at Schnader Harrison. Donovan said he is dealing with the bankruptcy of a Korean steamship line, the terms of a contract between a tugboat company and a ship and negotiating the construction and purchase of a riverboat gaming vessel. San Francisco plaintiffs’ firm McGuinn, Hillsman & Palefsky continues to represent longshore workers, seamen and passengers in personal injury cases, as well as a number of deep sea divers. Partner John Hillsman said work on the plaintiff side has further diminished with the tightening of the federal law intended to protect merchant seamen. Hillsman said that until fairly recently the law was interpreted to apply to near-shore workers, such as those working on barges and offshore oil rigs. But now, he said, fewer workers are allowed to sue under the law. While the golden age of maritime law has passed, attorneys say it hasn’t lost its appeal. And when shipwrecked treasures are involved, the stakes can be quite high. Booth’s client hasn’t yet salvaged the Alaskan gold but when he does, he expects to net a fortune. Based on reports of the stevedores that loaded the ship, “we estimate the cargo is worth $900 million to $1 billion,” Booth said, “depending on how much is there and recovered and the price of gold.”

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